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Defense Packs Playoff Punch

Posted Jan 17, 2012

After 16 games of establishing itself as one of the league’s elite, the 49ers defense stepped it up another notch in Saturday’s 36-32 win over the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Divisional Playoff round.

Everyone knew the 49ers were tough to run against and tough to score on. Now they know how hard-hitting the unit is, following another contest full of big tackles and swarming take downs.

“That’s what teams don’t like,” Donte Whitner said. “Teams don’t like to face physical defenses, when everybody from the cornerbacks to the safeties to the linebackers and defensive linemen are hitting.”

Whitner has a point.

At each level of the 49ers defense, you’ll find some heavy hitters, starting at the back with safeties Whitner and Dashon Goldson. Then there are the linebackers, who are led by the All-Pro tandem of NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis on the inside. Not to mention the defensive front, which features fellow All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith.

A day before his team took the field against the Saints, 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio told his players to be the aggressors.

“That’s part of the game,” said Ahmad Brooks, who was one of three 49ers to record a sack against New Orleans. “That’s how we play football. We’d rather have a physical game.”

It seemed everyone followed Whitner’s lead on Saturday, as he finished the Saints’ opening drive with a crushing blow on running back Pierre Thomas, making him fumble the ball at the doorstep of the 49ers goal line. From that point on, the fellows in the red jerseys could be found delivering big blow after big blow, slowing down quarterback Drew Brees and the robust New Orleans attack.

“That pretty much set the momentum that we were going to have that game,” Smith said of Whitner’s bruising tackle. “He took probably seven points off the board right there. Huge, huge, huge play and he’s been doing that all year. He’s a physical dude.”

Speaking of physical players, Smith also had a few powerful moments of his own on Saturday. While he was only credited with one sack, the fiery veteran also had a pair of memorable quarterback takedowns in the second half.

Perhaps the most impressive play came with Smith bull-rushed Pro Bowl tackle Jermon Bushrod right into Brees, before pulling down signal-caller by the collar of his jersey and taking down both players. Smith also had a vicious hit on Brees in the fourth quarter, splitting the quarterback’s legs like a scissor shortly after he threw a pass.

To 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, Smith’s performance this season has been off the charts.

“Is there an 11 out of 10?” Harbaugh said. “Is there such a thing? Is there a 12 out of 10? He just keeps finding another rung.”

Though he may be in his 11th year as a pro, Smith shows no signs of fatigue. If anything he looks like he’s getting stronger as the season wears on.

Not only did Smith stay on the field for virtually every defensive snap on Saturday, but he even lined up as an extra offensive lineman on a couple of plays.

“You just go out there and run into your guy,” Smith said. “It’s not the most complicated thing. They dummied it down for me so I didn’t have to learn a whole bunch. It was good.”

Heading into Sunday’s showdown with the New York Giants in the NFC Championship, Smith is fully aware of how talented the opposition will be. Having escaped the Week 10 matchup against the Giants with a 27-20 victory – due in large part to a late, fourth-down pass Smith batted down – the 49ers are expecting another tight contest.

Smith said the 49ers will have to execute the same game plan they had against the Saints, calling quarterback pressure a big key to contest. Eli Manning led the Giants to a 37-20 victory at Green Bay on Sunday, throwing for 330 yards and three touchdowns.

“They’re both Pro Bowl quarterbacks,” cornerback Tarell Brown said of Brees and Manning. “They both have great receivers who do a lot of great things. He puts the ball in their hands and lets them run.”

And while emotions may be running high in the days leading up the NFC title game, don’t be expecting any trash talking from the 49ers.

“Out here in San Fran we let our Shoulder Pads do all the talking,” Whitner tweeted on Tuesday.

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